While in everyday life it may conjure images of people charging into burning houses or diving into choppy oceans to save drowning dogs, “bravery” has a rather different connotation when applied to Hollywood actors and their choice of roles. Threatening to simply become a byword for “gets his/her kit off” or “plays a gay character,” the word "bravery" as critical currency has perhaps been a little undermined by reductive overuse. But there is still value in separating the kinds of performances that are calculated simply to rake in dollars, raise profiles or cement a star persona from those that seem chosen to test an actor's limits and challenge the audience’s expectations. For the sake of argument, the latter roles are the ones we’re labelling “brave” here, which comes in handy when discussing the varied and thriving career of Nicole Kidman, who turns 46 today. This time last year we talked about her 5 Essential Performances, and while there's obviously some overlap, this year we thought instead about which we might consider her bravest.
Of course, it’s a concept that does imply some level of achievement and recognition already attained, as it’s not every actor who has the option of choosing the challenging indie over the formulaic romantic comedy or the tentpole sidekick. Kidman herself broke through with the really quite good but still totally B “Dead Calm,” which got her the role of romantic interest in “Days of Thunder” and Tom Cruise’s life for a decade. But as soon as she established a foothold, she started to try to change things up, with erratic results -- she was totty in “Batman Forever” the year after she was so brilliant in “To Die For” and more recently still, bracketed Jonathan Glazer’s sublimely unsettling “Birth” (see below) and Sydney Pollack’s fine-we-guess “The Interpreter” with the twin stinkers of “Bewitched” and “The Stepford Wives.”
Undoubtedly TWC will be making a push later this year for Kidman to win Best Actress a second time for “Grace of Monaco,” and of course she already has her “The Hours” statue under her belt. But though prestigey roles based on real-life people score highly with the Academy, there are other films of of hers that we admire her more for taking. Here are five performances she won no Oscars for, in films of wildly varying quality, that we feel required not just talent and profile, but chutzpah to take on.
“Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
There are probably as many shades of opinion on Stanley Kubrick’s last film as there are people who’ve seen it. But for all the frustrations and triumphs it contains (and there are both), and for all some of the actors seem to drift through unanchored to any particular intention or motivation, Kidman is one player here who seems completely sure of what she’s doing and what she means by it -- maybe even more so than Kubrick himself, if we may be so sacrilegious. She out-acts her then-husband by some distance, giving Alice Harford an inner life and a consistency that makes her character kind of the pole star in the movie which can be hard to navigate through. In fact, as not-massive-fans of the finished film, we have to say we kind of miss that sureness when she’s not onscreen. And the bravery part? Well, the role of a woman who causes her husband to explore an underworld of erotic revelation in response to her own sexual confessions would be a tricky enough one to negotiate even if you weren’t playing against your real-life husband, the biggest star in the world, about whom rumors of closeted homosexuality had been swirling, as well as talk of your possible impending divorce. But it seems again Kidman placed trust in her director almost above all else -- impressive here if for no other reason than that the shooting went on for two years. By the end of that time, she clearly had developed a close relationship with Kubrick, as lovingly detailed in this THR article.
“The Portrait of a Lady” (1996)
Even those critics who disliked Jane Campion’s interpretation of Henry James’ classic novel (and it is an interpretation, not an adaptation) -- and they seemed in the majority overall -- singled out Kidman’s central performance for praise. And on that level, if on almost no other concerning a film we admire hugely, we can certainly agree with those critics. Kidman is riveting in the central role of Isabel Archer, the naïve, impetuous and intelligent young woman whose promise and curiosity are gradually throttled to nothing after she makes the mistake (the “generous mistake” as her cousin Ralph puts it) of falling for and marrying the wrong man. While “To Die For” the previous year had already suggested that there might be more to the actress than thriller/romance/action furrow she’d been ploughing in Hollywood till then, the arch irony of that film’s satire just didn’t prepare us for the simple rawness of her performance in ‘Portrait.’ It was really one of the earliest examples of traits Kidman would demonstrate again through films good and bad; her unswerving commitment to the character and her total faith in her director. Minimally made-up and with frequent raw close-ups that push almost unbearably close in to her, Campion gives Kidman no part of Isabel to hide behind -- even the lavish costuming and set design is constructed to oppress her from all sides -- and instead she simply embodies her. There were James purists who called foul at, for example, Isabel crying, which she never does in the book, but we’d urge them, or anyone, to take a second look at this performance outside of the context of its fidelity to the novel, or even some of the arthouse flourishes Campion adds. For us, the empathy, the tragedy and the strangeness of the story rewards immensely, and all that is channelled through Kidman’s remarkably egoless but elegant turn.